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First, marginal step taken for NO college improvement

If you were waiting breathlessly on the Louisiana Board of Regents for Higher Education to kick off the revolution in restructuring the state’s institutions of higher learning, well, thanks for looking in, come back later when the Legislature is in session. But it was worth a look.

Appropriate to one option suggested by consultants hired to study the scope and form of potential consolidation of the University of New Orleans and Southern University New Orleans, located about a mile from each other down the same main artery, the Board voted 9-6 to create a University of Greater New Orleans that also would incorporate Delgado Community College activities, and to place the new entity in the University of Louisiana System.

Naturally, all sorts of wailing and gnashing of teeth emanated from special interests and their hyperbolic supporters vested in a separate SUNO, whose rhetoric seemed to equate the decision with the repeal of the Civil War Amendments (participating students utilizing such rhetoric thereby demonstrating no serious learning appears to be happening at SUNO). In fact, if carried out only to the extent of that decision, not much really changes.

Essentially, the plan would create separate and distinct roles for each institution while keeping them technically separate. UNO would serve as the research unit, presumably teaching graduate coursework and serving as the major center for grants and projects, with centers of study, while SUNO would become the main undergraduate teaching arm, mainly focusing on instruction for upper division courses. Delgado would contract itself to the new entity as the “university college,” a designation in academia for a unit that provides core courses for all students in their first 39 semester hours and emphasizes guidance and retention, especially valuable for the most marginal students wishing to continue on to achieve a baccalaureate degree.

The goal seems to be to play to the schools’ perceived strengths. Admission to UNO would be as selective as at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge, preventing dilution of teaching effort caused by dealing with less capable and/or prepared students. SUNO’s enrollees would have to meet the impending standards for a regional university (which means that few of its current students admitted today would have been admitted under them, given their average American College Test score of 15.5 compared to the new required standard of 20), and concentrate on the teaching aspect to its lesser-ability student body. Delgado would remain essentially open admission and serve as a pipeline to either, taking individuals presumably not ready for baccalaureate studies and hopefully getting them up to speed to tackle successfully that degree.

The theory here is that trying to be all things to all students, in the case of UNO and SUNO now, has hampered their retention and graduation rates. After all, using 2007 statistics SUNO has the lowest rate of the entire country’s 1,400 or so institutions, and UNO, for its Carnegie classification of research universities numbering about 200, was tied for second-lowest. Further, the combination of sorts that invites sharing of resources cushions the large dropoff that will occur in UNO enrollment as a result of jacking up ACT requirements and for SUNO from the already-decided standards rise to being in the Fall, 2012 semester, and also solves the burgeoning space problem at Delgado. For example, a number of lower-division classes may end up being taught by Delgado faculty members, perhaps some of whom will have transferred from UNO or SUNO employment, at UNO and SUNO.

While this plan may produce more efficient use of resources that turns into more graduates with fewer dollars spent for each of them, it does not produce even greater efficiencies that would come from true consolidation. The plan calls for keeping institution governance separate on most matters, meaning there won’t be much reduction in number of administrators, nor much concerning faculty members. Only in business affairs could significant cost savings occur, by paring duplicative back office functions. This will not produce large operational savings; rather, it seeks an increase in completers with marginally lower expenses simultaneously.

Thus, this does not represent the far-reaching change some feared and for which others hoped. In the former camp, those like Southern University System President Ronald Mason react as do all higher education officials when asked even to give up the smallest degree of power, as if a gator had just sunken its teeth into him and readied to pull him under the water into a death roll. Shrill warnings about how this would decimate the SU System coupled with credibility-strained pronouncements of impending federal funding loss if SUNO loses even one iota of autonomy (which seems unlikely give retention of separate institutions) are designed more to protect turf than to improve SUNO’s educational outcomes (the task force explicitly rejected a SU System suggestion to beef up an independent SUNO).

Among the latter appear Republicans Gov. Bobby Jindal and House Speaker Jim Tucker, the governor signaling approval of the desire of the speaker (a UNO graduate) to introduce legislation to merge. Depending on how it’s written, this potentially could create even greater savings and even better outcomes in making it a true merger, basically where SUNO’s infrastructure and some of its faculty members get turned over to Delgado, other faculty members end up working at UNO, and others still along with most SUNO administrators hit the pavement with vita in hand. The longer term benefits may be greater as you could probably just as good outcomes for even less money spent as with the consultants’ plan, but it also encompasses more political risk.

As described, and if enough legislators seem recalcitrant, Jindal could argue the plan seems to avoid the necessity of passing legislation to merge, since with separate accreditations maintained technically it does not seem to call for a merger (an opinion shared by the consultants). Assuming that any and every black legislator feels compelled to defend the current failing arrangement and being that they number only 22 in the House and eight in the Senate, Jindal and Tucker still have 13 votes to spare in the House and five in the Senate (a two-thirds majority being required). Whether enough others, in all likelihood Democrats and/or most principally the few non-black lawmakers representing majority black districts, oppose will make or break the bill.

Jindal, the cautious reformer by nature, uncharacteristically seems to want to go out on a limb on this matter and has signaled as such for some time. However, he does swing for the home run on occasion. Perhaps he shows boldness here having once lead the UL System and knowing the possibilities and rewards for fundamental change. Still, the plan as passed represents at least a limited, technocratic progress, and certainly stands as better than no progress at all through letting the present untenable situation continue. As a fallback position, it’s not bad at all.

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